Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, William Oldroyd directs a sexy, riveting thriller with audacity and a sure hand. The title isn’t coy about what this film is – and who its lead character is – but there’s a tremendous amount of surprise to be had in Lady Macbeth.
Screenwriter Alice Birch moves Leskov’s novel from Russia to England, where young bride Katherine (Florence Pugh) bristles under the oppression of her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) and father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank). We feel such pity for Katherine when we first meet her – forced to disrobe for her impotent husband, who glares at her naked form but refuses to touch her, forbidden from going outside for the fresh air and relative freedom she so plainly craves. Katherine is so profoundly bored that she can’t keep her eyes open during her endless days. She naps, she eats grapes and holds eye contact with the cat, she stares listlessly from the window at the outside world with silent longing. And that is all she does.
Until an encounter with a farmhand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) gives Katherine a fevered focus. Katherine sees Sebastian tormenting her servant Anna (Naomi Ackie), but despite scolding him for his behavior, she is at once infatuated with this rough, passionate man, a man so different from her icy husband. As Alexander spends an increasingly long stretch away from their home, Katherine and Sebastian become embroiled in a fiery affair under Anna’s watchful and quietly disapproving eye. Katherine grows fiercely empowered by this affair, and she soon goes to terrible lengths to sustain it.
Lady Macbeth takes a shocking journey, from feminist historical drama to something much darker and harder. Florence Pugh is a revelation, offering composure and real power in the role. We only pity Katherine until we begin to fear her, and the transformation is so gradual we don’t realize it until it’s upon us. Her presence and sheer command of our attention are matched by no man in the film, but Ackie – who has as few credits to her name as Pugh – gives a performance as impressive in her silent, powerless horror at Katherine’s dark acts.
And yet we cannot entirely blame Katherine for the dreadful things she does, not really. She is a victim who refuses to remain as such, the subject of institutionalized misogyny who will not abide her station. When her husband tells her to “Turn around, face the wall” so he can roughly masturbate to her nudity, Katherine allows herself a small smile at his foolishness. She is not the vulnerable one here. No, that’s Alexander in all of his impotent tyranny. “Stop smiling,” he tells her, and later, when she meets Sebastian, she barks the same orders, enjoying her novel authority. “Turn around. Face the wall. Stop smiling.” As Lady Macbeth unfolds, Katherine owns no small amount of agency over her fate – but it’s at the expense of the fate of everyone around her, even the wholly innocent.
If the subject matter weren’t so damn interesting, Oldroyd’s direction would still set Lady Macbeth apart from other costume dramas of its ilk. This is a quiet movie, with large segments taking place with no dialogue or music. We only hear the claustrophobic noises of a tightly run household: Anna’s shoes clicking briskly down the hallway, the clatter of wooden shutters being opened or closed, the sound of leather straps tightening, tightening Katherine’s corset until she is the shape of impossible femininity. The camera is still, intensely fixated on the darkly comic drama that’s unfolding before our eyes. The result is spellbinding, a period drama that feels utterly of our time, an ancient story told in an entirely new way.